How Brand Communities Can Help You Predict The Future

Updated: Jan 18

Have you suddenly decided to switch careers and become a clairvoyant? No, of course not. So, what do I mean when I say that brand communities can help you predict the future? Well in this article I will be delving into the subject of what they are, how they have formed and their relevance to relationship marketing. You’ll go beyond the simple dichotomy of active and inactive members and find out how to cater to all members of your brand community. Want to find out more? Then just keep reading.

What is a brand community?

A brand community is created when individuals “voluntarily join and retain their membership while deriving benefits from participating in the community (Kim, Choi, Qualls, & Han, 2008 cited in Mousavi, Roper, & Keeling, 2017, p. 377). Relationships are formed within this community between the brand and community members, between community members and the business that sells the brand and between community members who use the brand (McAlexander, Schouten, & Koening, 2002, p. 38). These communities are important to a business because they play a “vital role in enhancing and building brand loyalty, improving market penetration, generating positive word of mouth, and creating interest in products” (Armstrong & Hagel, 1996, cited in Hajli, Shanmugam, Papagiannidis, Zahay, & Richard, 2017, p. 137). If the aim is to improve market penetration (the percentage of the total estimated market for a product/service) and generate positive word of mouth are all community members created equal? Much like with all online activity (e.g. social media) there are two types of users: posters (active or interactive members) and lurkers (passive or noninteractive members) (Preece, Nonnecke, & Andrews, 2004; Ridings, Gefen, & Arinze, 2006 cited in Mousavi, Roper, & Keeling, 2017, p. 380). So, which one do you want to have? Do both serve a purpose?

Active Members vs Inactive Members

Active members typically get involved in the community and identify more strongly with it because they learn the social rules through trial and error. Generally, they are involved in the community in “a wide variety of ways [through] affective, behavioural and cognitive engagement” (Dessart et al., 2015 cited in Veloutsou & Black, p.3). Inactive members will learn about to interact within the community by vicarious observation (read: voyeuristic behaviour) of other group members. They are typically less emotionally invested in the community and therefore have a lesser attachment or sense of belongingness.

Level of interaction

Community involvement as we’ve seen is largely defined by the level of interaction in the said community. There are different levels of involvement that go beyond the simple active member/lurker dynamic. These have been defined by Azar, Machado, Vacas-de-carvalho, & Mendes, A., (2016) as brand detached, brand profiteers, brand companions or brand reliants.

Brand detached:

Most commonly referred to as lurkers who don’t assign much value to the online presence of the brand. You won’t find them liking, commenting or sharing the brands content (Azar et al., 2016, p. 168-169).

Main motivation: to being entertained

Best marketing appeal: videos that are funny or evoke an emotional response

Brand profiteers:

Mostly considered the “what’s in it for me” members of the community they respond well to content “about events, posts containing announcements about special offers, posts that explicitly promote the brand’s products and posts related to special dates” (Azar et al., 2016, p. 170).

Main motivation: to gain rewards

Best marketing appeal: photos that are information or reward oriented (e.g. special deals, promos, etc)

Brand companions:

Most commonly these members are part of the community in order to gain a sense of connection with other like-minded individuals. They often have other friends or associates that are already part of the community. They engage in order “to express themselves through the association with the brand” (Azar et al., 2016, p. 171).

Main motivation: to increase social influence

Best marketing appeal: videos or photos that encourage social interaction (e.g. online events, community games, etc)

Brand reliants:

Most commonly considered brand ambassadors or advocates due to their enthusiasm and commitment towards the brand (Azar et al., 2016, p. 172). They are the most active members of the brand community. They want to know more about the brand and are highly responsive to the brands content.

Main motivation: to gain information and be entertained

Best marketing appeal: shareable videos or photos (e.g. ask their opinion and actively demonstrate taking that advice onboard)

Virtual brand community engagement

So let’s rewind a little and first see how a brand community is developed. Then we can look into how we can go about ensuring maximum engagement in a brand community. Brand community engagement is a two-step process:

Firstly, the member initiation stage and secondly, the full membership stage.

Figure 1 Virtual brand community engagement practice (From Tang, 2010 in Hollebeek, Juric, and Tan, 2017, p. 210)

Member Initiation Phase

This is the stage where everything is all shiny, new and exciting. In this stage, individuals are met with a greeting (i.e. made to feel welcome) and regulating occurs (i.e. the ground rules are set, and everyone is made clear about how things work around here). This is where community members learn the customs and norms of the community in order to avoid embarrassment, miscommunication or disagreements in future (De Valck et al., 2009 cited in Hollebeek, Juric and Tan, 2017, p. 209).

Full Member Phase

This is the stage where members will be assisted (given pointers on community and non-community related issues), appreciated (i.e. recognised for their contribution to the community), empathized with (i.e. shown support, consideration or understanding in relation to community or non-community related issues, mingle (i.e. network or make friends), celebrated (i.e. where significant moments for individual community members, the community as a whole or the brand will be celebrated) and ranked (i.e. according to their individual contributions to the maintenance and growth of the community) (Hollebeek, Juric and Tan, 2017, p. 210).

Relationship Marketing

Regardless of what type of community member they or what stage they are in the engagement process we must never lose sight of three very important things that a brand must build and maintain in order to ensure the longevity of the brand community. Given that a brand community is built upon relationship-building, trust, ensuring satisfaction and engendering commitment it is paramount that there be give-and-take (Palmatier et al.,2006 cited in Hajli, et al., 2017, p. p. 137). One-sided or unequal relationships lack longevity and are very hard to retrieve once problems arise. When we talk about relationship marketing we are referring to how “to identify, establish, maintain, enhance and, when necessary, terminate relationships with customers and other stakeholders” (Hajlia et al., 2017, p. 137). To delve into this subject we’ll explore three key elements: relational antecedents, relationship quality and, business share.

Figure 2 Relationship quality as higher-order construct (Vieira, Winklhofer, & Ennew, 2014, p. 95)

Relational antecedents

Before we can even look into what makes a good relationship we need to see what precedes the relationship. You must first ensure that there mutual goals where “both parties work as equals toward a common long-term aim” (Vieira et al., 2014, p.91). You must also ensure that there is effective communication and by this, I mean timely, relevant, regular and designed to extend the conversation (Adjei, Noble & Noble, 2012, p. 24). You must also ensure that your customer is able to accurately perceive your “level of technical knowledge and ability to demonstrate [that] knowledge (Boles et al. 2000; Palmer and Bejou 1994 cited in Vieira et al., 2014, p.93). Lastly, you must ensure that your customer is able to perceive both economic returns and social gains from associating with your brand in order to ensure the highest relational value (Hennig-Thurau, Gwinner, & Gremler 2002 cited in (Vieira et al., 2014, p.91).

Relationship quality

Once we’ve covered all our bases with mutual goals, effective communication, clearly demonstrated our domain expertise and ensured the maximum relational value we are very much on the way to ensuring a good quality relationship. Trust, a key building block in a good relationship, is based on the “perception of the competence, integrity, and benevolence” (Akrout & Nagy, 2018, p. 941). Building upon this we have satisfaction where your customer feels that you are meeting their needs for economic returns and social gains in a satisfactory manner. Lastly, we have commitment, which is defined as the “psychological attachment toward the online service provider, along with his/her willingness to maintain the customer–firm relationship” (Akrout & Nagy, 2018, p. 941).

Share of business

This is an objective performance measure. It is the portion of the total market (for the product or service you sell) that you effectively control. This is calculated based on sales revenue “where sales of the firm are compared to sales of all of the competitors in the firm’s market” (Swisky, 2004, p.1). We are therefore evaluating the “combined sales of all competitor firms [as being the] total demand for products or services [in a specific] market” (Swisky, 2004, p.1). Your rank on this market is determined by your share of the market. Your ability to meet the relational antecedents and develop a high-quality relationship is incredibly important to this market share.

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So, you’ve seen that you don’t need a sixth sense in order to understand brand communities. You’ve seen what they are, the diverse needs of community members and how best to interact with them according to their motivations. We’ve explored the process of brand community creation, development, and maintenance. But also you’ve seen how relational antecedents and relational quality can predict your market share. You don’t need to change careers or develop any special powers you simply need to devote greater energy to the relationships you have with your stakeholders and they will provide you valuable insights on your brands future.

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